A SpaceX launch on Wednesday will be taking a rather unusual spacecraft to orbit – a small satellite that will attempt to grow tomatoes while spinning to replicate the gravity on the Moon and Mars.
Called Eu:CROPIS (Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-Food Production in Space), the mission is one of dozens being launched on the SSO-A rideshare mission, organized by the US company Spaceflight Industries. Originally scheduled to launch on 19 November, the flight was delayed and is now set to launch November 28 at 1.32pm Eastern Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
This particular microsatellite, packed with tomato seeds, is designed to help us prepare to one day grow plants on other worlds. If we want humans to live long-term on the Moon or Mars, they’re going to need to be somewhat self-sustainable, so proving they can actually feed themselves is pretty crucial.
“When you’re planning to build up a station on the Moon or Mars, you need some fresh food,” said gravitational biologist Dr. Jens Hauslage from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Principal Investigator on the mission. “[And] you cannot bring tons of food [with you].”
A lot of things have changed on Earth since it formed 4.5 billion years ago, such as its atmosphere, climate, the amount of light coming from the Sun, and the soil. But one thing that has remained constant is the gravity of our planet – and we don’t have a great understanding of how gravity has affected the evolution of biology throughout the planet’s history.
Dr. Hauslage and his team hope to find out with Eu:CROPIS, which will orbit 600 kilometers (370 miles) above Earth. The spacecraft is small, measuring just one meter (three feet) on each side, with solar panels on its exterior. Inside, it is split into two sections, one to act as a lunar greenhouse, and the other a Martian greenhouse.
Over the next year, the spacecraft will use four gyroscopes to spin itself at different rates. First, for six months it will spin at 20 revolutions per minute, generating lunar gravity onboard, which is about a sixth Earth’s gravity. Then, for the next six months it will spin at 32 revolutions per minute, generating Mars gravity, about a third that of our planet.
In each of those periods, the team will hope that some tomatoes on board the spacecraft will be able to germinate. Tomatoes were picked for their red color, so they would be easily visible to the 32 cameras that are inside the spacecraft, which will send images back to Earth. The spacecraft has no thrusters on board, and at the end of the mission will be left to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
The seeds will be supplied with nutrients using bacteria and single-celled algae called Euglena gracilis. Artificial urine will then be added to each experiment, which the bacteria will break down into nitrate for the plants. Water will also be added, and a white light will be used to give them ten hours of daylight each 24 hours.
We have grown plants in space before, notably the Veggie experiment taking place on board the International Space Station (ISS). But that experiment produced just a small amount of lettuce in microgravity over a short period of time. Eu:CROPIS will be the longest such experiment in space ever conducted.
“This will be the first greenhouse in space under lunar and Martian gravity,” said Dr. Hauslage. “This experiment is only possible in space.”
If everything goes to plan, the cameras should return some great images of ripe red cosmic tomatoes inside the spacecraft, proving gravity on other worlds shouldn’t pose a problem when it comes to growing plants. If we can demonstrate that these biological life support systems can operate in a closed cycle on a spacecraft, that bodes pretty well for human exploration.
Now all that’s left is for the launch and deployment to go ahead successfully. And if it does, we might just have some tasty fruit orbiting the planet in a miniature greenhouse for a short while.
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